Lance Neibauer has always had a passion for building things.
He designed and built his own ranch-style home in Tumalo, as well as much of the furniture inside.
And he built his aviation company, Lancair International, from a hobby into one of the biggest names in home-built aircraft kit manufacturing. He also founded the former Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp., and built it into a Bend company of more than 700 employees at its peak.
It is his work in aviation that will lead him to be inducted into the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Hall of Fame on Friday in Oshkosh, Wis.
“The Hall of Fame is probably the cream of the crop as far as honors,” says Neibauer, who will, ironically, fly on a commercial plane to the ceremony. “They always say, ‘It’s better to be lucky than good.’ With the kit company, we were in the right spot in the right time.”
The 60-year-old Neibauer will be inducted into the hall with four others for their “remarkable contribution to the aviation community,” the EAA says. One of the inductees is Bob Hoover, who most famously worked with Chuck Yeager, flying a chase plane in 1947 when Yeager broke the sound barrier.
But Neibauer, a pioneer in Central Oregon’s general aviation industry, took an unusual route to get the top of aviation.
He was introduced to aviation as a child growing up in Michigan by his uncle, Ray Betzoldt, who helped build the Meyers 200, a famed single-engine light aircraft at the time.
But Neibauer thought little of pursuing aviation professionally, opting to major in graphic design at Michigan State University instead.
A 24-year-old graphic designer in the Los Angeles area, Neibauer joined the EAA and decided to build his own plane.
He designed a small kit aircraft, which means his company built the parts and shipped them to customers for home assembly, made out of composites that made the plane lighter and faster than most home-built planes. After several improvements to the original design, Neibauer finished the two-seat, single-engine Lancair 200, which he began to sell in 1985.
“When I built that first airplane, I thought it will just be an airplane for me to fly around in,” Neibauer says. “With a little marketing background, I had in the back of my mind, ‘Well, maybe this could be something. Who knows?’”
Demand for the planes, the parts of which were manufactured in his small facility in Santa Paula, Calif., quickly grew. In 1991, he moved Lancair International to Redmond to help grow the company.
“There was only one traffic light,” Neibauer recalls. “There was not one house to rent in Redmond. Not one.”
Neibauer chose Redmond over hundreds of other areas because he could purchase land on which to operate and the area was more attractive because of incentives offered by Redmond city officials.
In 1995, Neibauer formed airplane production company Pacific Aviation Composites in Bend, which would later become The Lancair Co. and then Columbia.
Columbia eventually filed for bankruptcy, after Neibauer had left the firm, and was purchased by Cessna Aircraft Co., which renamed the company and moved production out of Bend this year.
“He’s the father of general aviation manufacturing in the area,” says Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon. “You really trace it back, and because he chose to move his company here from California, (he) is the reason we had Columbia, obviously, and then Cessna. And the reason we had Epic (Air) here as well and a whole bunch of other suppliers and other companies that have spun off.”
While Cessna has left and Epic’s parent company, Aircraft Investor Resources LLC, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, aviation remains an important industry in the region, one on which EDCO and other hope to build.
In addition to the performance of the Lancair planes, the original design and its descendants have always been well received for aesthetics, something Neibauer credits to his artistic background.
And in 1994, a Lancair plane was displayed in the lobby of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as a design work of art.
“His designs have stood the test of time,” says Tom Poberezny, president of the EAA. “His designs are focused on aircraft performance. He has always been a fellow that designed more in terms of style and performance.”
No longer involved in Lancair International, which he sold in 2003, the quiet and unassuming Neibauer is semi-retired and no longer owns a plane. He’s working on another business venture, but is mum on the details.
And while his success is a bit of a surprise to Neibauer, he credits love of aviation for Lancair’s success.
“I was never striving to do that,” Neibauer says. “I like making planes. And I went down a lot of avenues in which aviation became a career.”